Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sorority Recruitment and Discrimination at Alabama

Part of me wishes I had spoken out sooner.  Lord knows I had the opportunity.  But please do not confuse my silence with acquiescence. Whatever you do, don't call me a bystander. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

I have watched with more than just a passing interest at the events unfolding at the University of Alabama in the days since the Crimson White published its story on the latest round of racial discrimination in Panhellenic Sorority Recruitment. To the casual observer, this story was nothing new under the sun. African American women have been trying, unsuccessfully, to join Panhellenic sororities for years. The result was always the same - systematic discrimination. Many brave young women tried to break through that barrier, but all met the same fate.  Almost every year, the Crimson White (the campus newspaper) would devote some ink to the story.  It would be all the buzz on campus for a few days, as students and faculty would wrestle with the nature of the problem.  But then the Crimson Tide football team would take the field for the first time and stories from sorority recruitment would fade into the background.

But the story this year was different.

Not everyone has picked up on the difference in this year's story.  It was subtle. In a world where we like to receive our news in 140 characters or less, details often get lost in the headlines.  But those who read beyond the headlines and who understand the issues on that campus noticed the difference in this year's story - for the first time, the undergraduate sorority members were calling out their alumnae members.  By name.

I had known for a few months about one of the young African American women participating in recruitment this year.  I knew she had impeccable credentials: 4.3 GPA, 28 ACT score, involved in high school, beautiful, grand-daughter of a member of the UA Board of Trustees, etc.  I knew that several undergraduate members of various sororities knew her and had her on the top of their list - an "RTP" as we called them at Alabama (Rush to Pledge).  Perhaps she would be the one to break through.

It was not to be.

The story that the Crimson White reported this year was not just a story of discrimination. It was a story of subversion. A story of threats and fear-mongering. A story of the abuse of power. This year, at least three of the chapters were ready to take the plunge.  But the alumnae advisors were having none of it.  In at least one chapter, the alumnae threatened the chapter with promises of withdrawn financial support.  In at least two others, the alumnae advisors overrode the chapter's voting process and removed the African American women from the pool, completely circumventing the recruitment process and subverting the will of the chapter.  And in the Crimson White article, the undergraduates told their stories of what had happened.  This represents, to my knowledge, the first time that undergraduate members have publicly called out their alumnae members on this issue.

Now, fast forward one week.  After a week of humiliating headlines, the University President called a private meeting with sorority advisors. The decision was made to increase campus total to 5 more than the largest chapter on campus, allowing any chapter to add additional new members through the continuous open bidding (COB) process. I have been told by those present at the meeting that the President did not beat around the bush regarding the reason for increasing total - the sororities should take the opportunity to do the right thing and pledge the women they want to pledge.

Some have called this action a band-aid - a temporary fix aimed only at stopping the negative publicity. To some extent, this may be true, but those who make that argument demonstrate very little understanding of the underlying fear that is at the heart of this issue.  If a sorority uses this opportunity to pledge an African American member, then everything will change forever.

At the heart of this issue is fear: fear of being the first, fear of how other Greek organizations on campus will respond, fear of the alumnae, fear of being different, fear of the unknown. The fear extends from the undergraduate chapters to the alumnae to the national organizations.  There is also fear within the University administration. The University has been afraid of taking a stand on this issue for years - afraid of offending alumni donors who might withdraw their support of the University, afraid of letting their Director of Greek Affairs get too involved in the issue. Fear is a very powerful motivator. As it turns out, the only thing more powerful than fear is public humiliation.

It looks like at least one sorority will extend a bid to at least one African American woman this week.  They will do so proudly, but with trepidation - with fear of the unknown. But here is the important part - when they take this historic step forward, the sky will not fall. The world will keep turning. Their alumnae will still support them. The fraternities on campus will still swap with them.  Other than having one dark face among hundreds of white ones in chapter photos, nothing will change. And everyone else will notice this.  The alumnae members who still think it is 1975 will see that times have changed. Recalcitrant undergraduates, those who wanted to do the right thing but were afraid of how others on campus would respond, will see that the group with a black member did not become a social pariah.  The fear will dissipate.  The issue of skin color will become a non-issue.  I will not go so far as to say that the floodgates will open, but I do think that the issue of race in sorority recruitment will become a thing of the past. Simply, chapters who want to pledge a woman of color will be able to do so with no fear.  And that will be a huge step forward for the University of Alabama.

When this happens, I will not give any credit to the University of Alabama administration or to the national organization who happens to be the first to do it.  The University has dodged responsibility on this issue for years.  The national organizations have been made aware of problematic advisors on numerous occasions and have done nothing about it. The credit will go solely to the young women who have had the courage to speak out, to challenge the status quo, and to go public with their stories - women like Anna Foley, Hallie Paul, Alex Clark, Melanie Gotz, Kirkland Back, Yardena Wolf, and so many others. It is not easy to challenge the status quo, especially on a campus like the University of Alabama with a "machine" that has maintained its power on campus through coercion, violence and intimidation.  These women deserve all of the credit for making this change possible.  Their story is a story of courage.

I could tell a lot of stories in this post - stories that would embarrass the University and several of the national organizations on campus.  But what's the point?  I have no desire to embarrass anyone.  I want to see this issue become a thing of the past.  I want to see the fear and discrimination end.  I want to see the students at the University of Alabama, the great majority of whom have been unfairly characterized as racist, take ownership of their chapters and do the right thing.  As long as that happens, and I have every reason to believe that it will, then my stories would serve no purpose other than to ruin professional relationships and create even more humiliation.  I have no desire to see either of those things happen.  I love the University of Alabama.  It is an amazing place.  I am a proud former employee and a proud alumnus.  I want to see my Alma Mater do the right thing, and I have never been more hopeful that it will.






5 comments:

  1. Roll Tide, fine sir. I am hopeful, too. We shall see.

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  2. Clarification: When you said, "African American women have been trying, unsuccessfully, to join Panhellenic sororities for years," were you referring to ALL Panhellenic Sororities or just Panhellenic Sororities on The University's campus? I hope the latter because I know that my Panhellenic Community (which just so happens to be in the state of Alabama) has and continues to pledge women of ALL color. I just mean to point out or clarify that we aren't all stuck in the 1950s or fear our advisors. :)

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    1. The entire story is specifically about Alabama, including that statement.

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  3. Great thoughts. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  4. Great piece Gentry. Sorry I am just getting around to reading it. I am extremely proud of the leadership taken by undergraduate sorority women at both Alabama and Dartmouth this year.

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